The 2012 NFL season may have given us more impressive performances by first-year starting quarterbacks than any previous season in the league's long history. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all took their teams at either the start of the season, or at crucial times down the stretch, and redefined their offenses to a historic degree. Luck took the Indianapolis Colts, 2011's worst team, to the playoffs, and he was anything but a "game manager." He attempted more deep passes and took more pressure than any other quarterback. Griffin cost the Washington Redskins first-round draft picks in the next two years, but he proved to be worth that price when he took his team's formerly moribund offense into the vanguard of the NFL's new option attacks.
Russell Wilson wasn't expected to start when he was drafted -- that's what happens to a third-round pick who was dinked by front offices because of his height -- but he had a similarly transformative effect on the Seattle Seahawks' offense, and tied Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes while bailing out of the pocket more often than anyone else at his position. And Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took his team to the verge of a Super Bowl win in his 10th professional start (yes, dear commenters, we do know that he was not a rookie in 2012 ... but he was a first-year starter), with an offense that turned out to be uniquely and perfectly suited to his strengths.
Four young men who have done the unexpected, and raised the level of expectation for rookie quarterbacks to a ridiculous degree. Now that their performances are in the books, however, all four of them are facing the same tough question:
What do you do for an encore? We've explored how Luck's and Griffin's second seasons might be different -- now, let's investigate the case of Russell Wilson, who became the best quarterback nobody expected.
Five. That's the number Russell Wilson carries with him wherever he goes. It's the chip on his shoulder, and the number he can now throw in a few faces, should he choose to. That's the number of quarterbacks taken in the 2012 NFL draft before the Seattle Seahawks took Wilson in the third round with the 75th overall pick. The selections of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III with the first two overall picks were obvious, intelligent, and instructive to the futures of the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins franchises, but the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns have to be wondering how their 2012 seasons may have been different had they stocked up on other positions in the first and second rounds and taken Wilson later, as opposed to Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, respectively. The Denver Broncos' selection of Brock Osweiler in the second round might prove to be what bridges that franchise's success paradigm in the post-Manning years, but there's a lot of "What if..." going on in NFL front offices when Wilson's name is now mentioned.
As Mike Freeman of CBS Sports wrote late last year, some personnel people found their jobs in question due in part to Wilson's ascent, and the fact that team after team didn't want to "risk" taking on the 2011 NCAA passing efficiency leader just because he stands a bit under 5-foot-11. The Jacksonville Jaguars took a punter (Cal's Brian Anger) five picks before Wilson was taken, which sentenced them to another year of Blaine Gabbert under Center, and Chad Henne in Gabbert's stead. Perhaps Gabbert will take a step forward in his third NFL season, but he -- and a lot of other young quarterbacks -- will need to move with a quickness to match where Wilson already is, and what he's already done.
What did the North Carolina State/Wisconsin alum do in his rookie season? Well, he beat out high-profile free-agent signing Matt Flynn with an incendiary training camp, won the veterans over almost immediately with his work ethic, and went off the hook once his coaches took the training wheels off. What happened from there? From Wilson's player comment in the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac:
Since coming out of Wisconsin, Wilson has set or tied rookie records for highest Lewin Career Forecast projection, touchdown passes, single-game DYAR (twice), and total season DYAR. When you include Wilson’s four rushing scores, only Cam Newton (21 touchdowns passing, 14 rushing) produced more combined touchdowns in his first year. In the last half of the year, Wilson threw 16 touchdowns and two interceptions and led the NFL in passing DVOA. Over the course of the season, he was third in DVOA when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter or overtime (behind only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) and fourth in DVOA on third downs (behind Manning, Brady, and Aaron Rodgers). He was also third in DVOA on deep passes.
The Seahawks worked around Wilson’s height by putting him in motion. Including scrambles, he had a league-high 163 plays outside the pocket, with a DVOA of 39.3%. If defenses wanted to blitz the edge and keep Wilson in the pocket, that was OK too—his DVOA there was 37.8%, one of the ten best in football and better than Super Bowl winners like Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. Finally, he was second to Cam Newton among quarterbacks in rushing DYAR.
If you have questions about some of those stats, a glossary can be found here, but the point is actually pretty simple. 19 quarterbacks in the NFL history have thrown at least 100 passes in their rookie seasons after being selected in the third round, and Wilson's year wasn't just historically significant from that perspective; it was just short of revolutionary. His 100.00 passer rating and 7.10 Net Yards per Attempt were by far the highest for any third-round rookie in NFL history, and among third-round quarterbacks in any year of their careers. By any measure, Wilson's rookie season was one of the more successful at his position in the history of pro football.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who likes to motivate whenever he's awake, now uses Wilson's example of development as a case study for all things. "Coming out of nowhere as he did and accomplishing so much so quickly ... as a matter of fact, to start our staff meeting this morning, I showed clips of Russell’s first day in this camp," Carroll said on May 10. "We had him mic’d up. He’s fumbling snaps and cursed himself out a couple times. It was funny to see it, to know how far he’s come in such a short time. It was kind of for the staff to remember that we might not see everything on the first day and to keep hopes that we can bring some stuff out of these guys. It’s a great story for everyone.”
Perhaps most encouragingly, Wilson isn't at all satisfied with what he did in 2012. When the dreaded "sophomore slump" was brought to his attention in June, he treated the concept as he did all the assessments of how a "too-short" quarterback would succeed in the NFL.
“I don’t even know those words," Wilson said in June. "I don’t pay attention to it. I think the biggest thing is just focusing on tomorrow, focusing on the day, the rest of the day that I have, the next couple hours I have here. Focus on that and then just focus on tomorrow. Stay in the moment, stay in the now. Whenever I do that, you have a better opportunity to play at a high level. We can focus just on the now and that’s going to give me a chance, so I’m not concerned about that at all.”
Wilson can sound generic at best in interviews, but it is that very regularity that leads to consistency, so the Seahawks will take it. If there is reason for concern regarding Wilson's second season, it's that there will inevitably be more passing plays, more subsequent shot plays, and more inevitable mistakes. Andrew Luck learned this in his rookie year, when people downgraded him for his 18 regular-season picks and ignored the fact that Bruce Arians put the entire offense in Luck's hands from the word "go." Wilson's path to the top was far more managed, though he got his chances to fly in the second half of the season, because no team ran more and threw less than the Seahawks last season. Though Marshawn Lynch and a host of backup backs still define the offense to a degree, there's no question that Wilson will be tasked to make his mark at an equal or more dominant level.
Carroll insisted that his quarterback is ready for that climb.
"Just in terms of the knowledge of the game in general, and also of our playbook," Carroll said in June, when asked how things have developed in a year. "The playbook is so much more extensive from this point last year to where we are right now. That growth is really, really good. We’re basically putting in the same plays that we’ve had in the playoffs. That type of offense right now where we’re really intricate and really focused on the details, and when you focus on the details and continue to harp on those details, the more you’ll grow and learn, and the better you’ll be when you have those big opportunities in games.”
How might enemy defenses re-structure their schemes to stop Wilson in a more expansive passing game? Odds are, he won't throw 25 percent of his passes from outside the pocket as he did last season, and teams will look to throw a bunch of oak trees at him up the middle. That strategy may not work -- despite Wilson's lack of height, he didn't finish in the top 10 on passes batted down last season (Weeden led the league with 24), proving that if you know how to move in the pocket and find lanes in short areas, height ain't nothing but a number. Wilson may also see more "scrape-exchange" techniques thrown his way to counter Seattle's highly effective versions of the read-option and Pistol offenses. The addition of receiver Percy Harvin gives the Seahawks additional backfield mesh points in the option game, and more opportunities with quick screens, which Wilson didn't throw that often in 2012.
There's always the chance for second-year regression when a rookie quarterback has a season like Russell Wilson did, but barring any severe injury issues, it's fairly easy to project that the version of Wilson we see in 2013 will more explosive, slightly more mistake-prone, and potentially a franchise quarterback. If that happens, still more teams will have to wonder what on earth they were missing.